Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Kathryn Schifferdecker, and Craig Koester. Article written by Craig Koester.
People often wonder what to make of the book of Revelation. Some find its bizarre images of seven-headed monsters and fire falling from the sky confusing at best and terrifying at worst. The Internet has numerous websites that attempt to turn Revelation into a roadmap for the end of the world. They speculate about the identity of the Antichrist and wonder how soon global conflict will explode into the catastrophic battle of Armageddon. Many people react negatively to all the speculation and want little to do with Revelation. Yet the book has much to offer and is well worth reading.
Step one is to get beyond the sensationalism. The popular theories about the coming end of the world are not really based on Revelation. They come from theological systems that create scenarios of the future by combining selected verses from books like Daniel, 1 Thessalonians, 1 John, and Revelation like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But those systems are not what you find when you read Revelation as a book with its own integrity.
Start reading at the beginning. That may seem obvious, but many people jump into the middle into order to find the monsters right away. They look for the things that seem scary and cruise right by all the passages that are hopeful without giving them a second glance. When you read Revelation from the beginning you find that the author spends several chapters dealing with the situation of the original readers.
Revelation is addressed to seven churches in the ancient Roman province of Asia, and every church had its issues. You find that some were facing conflict, while others were apathetic, and still others were just trying to get along without compromising their faith too badly. The writer wants readers to take those situations seriously and to ask how the rest of the book might speak to that range of situations.
Watch for scenes that challenge readers and then look for scenes that give hope. When you get to chapters 4-5 you encounter God and Jesus the Lamb in the heavenly throne room. It is a bright and festive scene of worship. Then things get ominous in chapter 6, as the author envisions horsemen bringing violence and hardship to the earth. By the end of that chapter, the whole earth is shaking and people are ducking for cover. But before the end comes, an angel interrupts the action so that people can receive a protective "seal" and the writer describes a countless multitude in heaven, giving praise to God in an expansive vision of hope. As you keep reading, you will find more threatening visions, but every time things seem to reach the brink of disaster, there is a new scene filled with possibility. So if you get uneasy as you read, that is no surprise. Just make sure to keep going, because there will be a scene rich with promise on the next page.
Revelation is one of the most musical books in the Bible. At every major juncture in the book there are songs of praise to God and the Lamb. The songs in the book also inspired later songwriters, so that churches today use music based on Revelation. People are often surprised to find that they have been using language from Revelation in worship and yet have never known it. A good example is the hymn "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty," which tells of the saints "casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea." The hymn paraphrases Rev 4:8-11. Traditional and contemporary Christian songs that declare Jesus the Lamb “worthy” of praise are based on Rev 5:9-13. George Frideric Handel’s famous “Hallelujah Chorus” uses words from Rev 11:15, and 19:6 and 16, and the gospel song “Shall we gather at the river” is based on the vision of New Jerusalem in Rev 22:1.
What makes Revelation so powerful and yet so confusing is its use of word pictures. The writer does not simply describe reality; he provides a perspective on reality through his word pictures. When he refers to Christ, he pictures a slaughtered and yet living Lamb. Then, when he deals with political realities, he pictures a seven-headed beast intimidating people. The writer does not use pictures like a secret code in order to hide his meaning. Rather, he uses word pictures to open up ways of seeing the world, much as an artist might do with paint. It seems clear that the author does not use the Lamb image in order to convince people that Jesus really had four legs and wool. Rather, the idea is that Jesus unleashes the power of God through his suffering, and the goal of his sacrifice is to redeem others. Similarly, the beast image does not tell people to watch for news reports about a seven-headed monster crawling out of the sea in order to take over the world. Rather, the beast shows what happens when the power of the state becomes destructive.
Revelation is a book to be read and pondered. It challenges people to see the dynamics of evil in the world, and yet gives encouragement to keep the faith. Evil is real, but not ultimate. God is the Creator, and God will stop at nothing short of making all things new (Rev 21:5).
Craig Koester is professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.